Tag: African American

Legal Divas of Color: Darcel Clark

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The third Legal Diva of Color this month is Darcel Clark. On January 16 of this year, Ms. Clark made history as being the first woman to become the Bronx  District Attorney, and the first African American female District Attorney in the State of New York!

Her path to success was certainly not an easy one. As a true “daughter of the Bronx”, she hails from the Soundview section of the borough.  Her parents both worked tough jobs, but took the time to be involved in their community.  These early lessons clearly rubbed off on their daughter. Ms. Clark attended New York City public schools, then went on to receive her undergraduate degree at Boston College, and her law degree at Howard University.

Upon graduation, she returned to the Bronx and never left. Ms. Clark was a prosecutor for 13 years in the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, rising to the rank of Supervisor of the Narcotics Bureau, and Deputy Chief of the Criminal Court Bureau.  In 1999, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appointed Ms Clark to the bench.  She served as a judge for a total of 16 years before winning the coveted position of District Attorney in a landslide election in November 2015.

Ms. Clark stated in her swearing in speech at Lehman College:

“I can say to any little girl, you know, if you work really hard, you can go on to law school, you can become an Assistant District Attorney, you can become a judge and then you can become District Attorney of the Bronx,”

The new District Attorney will focus on wrongful convictions, corruption, gun violence, and reforming the Rikers Island jail complex.

Thank you Darcel Clark, for making history, and being a Legal Diva of Color!

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Legal Divas of Color: Cheryl Mills

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The second Legal Diva of Color to be featured in this month’s series is Cheryl Mills.  Ms. Mills set the world on fire with her impassioned defense of then President Bill Clinton during his impeachment hearings in 1999.  In doing so, she became the first African American to address the Senate at such a hearing.

Cheryl Mills was born to a military family. Her father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army.  As a result, she moved quite a bit as a child.  She received her Bachelors at the University of Virginia, graduating as part of Phi Beta Kappa (exclusively for those who have high grades and good moral standing).  Ms. Mills went on to Stanford Law School, where she was selected to join Stanford Law Review. Again, this is an honor saved for the most gifted in the law school class.

Upon graduation, she worked at the Washington D.C. power broker firm Hogan and Hartson.  In 1993, Ms. Mills became the Associate Counsel to President Clinton. Her role was quiet until Ken Starr, the independent prosecutor, filed charges of obstruction and perjury against President Clinton, in part for the handling of his affairs with Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky. It was the second day of the hearings in January of 1998 that brought Cheryl Mills to center stage.  She presented President Clinton as a flawed human being, but not a criminal.  She is often remembered for stating:

“I stand here before you today because President Bill Clinton believed I could stand here for him … I’m not worried about civil rights, because this President’s record on civil rights, on women’s rights, on all of our rights is unimpeachable.

Obviously, what she said worked,  because the Senate voted not to impeach President Clinton.

Her path continued with a break from the practice of law to become the Senior Vice President for Corporate Policy and Public Programming at Oxygen Media. Ms. Mills then went to work at (my alma mater) New York University, handling labor related matters.  DC kept calling — she returned to Washington to serve as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Counselor and Chief of Staff in 2009.  She was called to a Senate hearing yet again as part of the Benghazi inquiry.

Currently, she is the founder and CEO of the BlackIvy Group, which builds businesses in Africa.  Her philanthropic endeavors also include sitting on a number of boards in the Washington DC area.

Thank you Cheryl Mills for being a Legal Diva of Color!

 

Legal Divas of Color: Jewel Lafontant- Mankarious

Every February, in honor of Black History Month, I feature a series called “Legal Divas of Color“. These are African-American female attorneys who blazed the trail on which I am honored to follow, as well as acknowledging those who are doing big things today. Feel free to browse past features and share your comments!

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This year’s first Legal Diva of Color is Jewel Lafontant- Mankarious.

Ms. Lafontant- Mankarious was born April 22, 1928 in Chicago, IL. It was as if her path was predetermined; her father Francis Stafford was an attorney who practiced before the United States Supreme Court, and was a co-founder of the National Bar Association, which is a voluntary bar association for African-Americans. In 1946, Ms. Lafontant- Mankarious became the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School.

In the early years of her practice, she partnered with her husband in a family law firm, and also worked at the Chicago Legal Aid Society. However her work did not go unnoticed. She made history again when she was appointed as an Assistant US Attorney in the Northern District of Illinois by President Eisenhower in 1955 — the first African American in that office. She held that post until 1958, when she returned to private practice. 1963 brought Ms. Lafontant- Mankarious another historic moment — being the first African American woman to argue a case before the US Supreme Court. The case she argued set the groundwork for Miranda vs. Arizona (the case we get our Miranda rights from). President Nixon tapped her talents to be the first female and the first African American Deputy Solicitor General in 1973, a post she held until 1975. While she returned to private practice, her public service continued under President Bush, serving as Ambassador at large and US coordinator for refugee affairs from 1989-1993. She practiced law until her death from breast cancer in 1997. Hear an interview with her here.

Thank you Jewel Lafontant- Mankarious for being a Legal Diva of Color, blazing the trail for African American prosecutors on both the state and federal level!

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Criminal Justice Reform

My op-ed on criminal justice reform ran last Sunday in the Miami Herald. Enjoy and share your thoughts!

We can create a smarter criminal-justice system

In his final State of the Union Address, President Obama called for criminal-justice reform — one of the most important issues facing the country. The cornerstones of the criminal-justice system have been punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation. For too long, the focus has been on the first, with some mention of the second. Rehabilitation has barely been in the equation. This should change — and can change.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 95 percent of inmates are eventually released. What are they coming back to? If you went in without job skills and a solid education, plus an addiction, and your time in prison addressed none of those issues, how are you going to succeed?

Read the rest of the op-ed here

DEAR JUSTICE SCALIA: I AM AFFIRMATIVE ACTION

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I am not ashamed to say it. I am a product of affirmative action.

Was I slow? Have trouble learning? Issues adapting to my environment?

Absolutely not.

My grades were certainly competitive enough to get me from high school to undergraduate to law school. I went on to pass the bar exam, have a long career as a prosecutor, teach, and hold leadership positions in various community as well as national organizations.

My profile is far from unusual. Affirmative action may aid one in getting in; but one has to perform to stay in. But to lump all students of one race into the category of being “slow learners” because entered a university based on a more broad based criteria is shockingly ignorant. That appears to be the thrust of your statement “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less — a slower-track school where they do well”. There is a misconception that affirmative action scrapes the bottom of the barrel of African-American students in order to preserve diversity. That is not the case; all the African-American students I know were able to compete as well as or exceed their white counterparts. The test is a long term one – whether or not the student succeeds academically, graduates, and what they do afterwards.

Painting minority students with a broad stroke because one believes they “shouldn’t have been admitted” ignores the long history that resulted in affirmative action in the first place. There was a time in this country that no matter how good your grades were as an African-American, you could not enter a mainstream university. Affirmative action was designed to make sure the playing field was leveled. Affirmative action is designed to make sure that institutions have diversity in their midst, and to assure equal education for all races. Separate but equal was not equality, as set forth by your learned predecessors on the Supreme Court during the case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. Your comments seem to indicate you wish to return to a time that your predecessors found to be abhorrent. Affirmative action was designed to combat institutional racism; it keeps universities honest. Without affirmative action, unless there will be a way to closely monitor and examine each universities admission policies to assure quality, there is no way to guarantee that qualified African-Americans would be admitted. With the recent unrest on the University of Missouri campus, as well as other campuses, what if colleges, under the proposed removal of affirmative action, decide that they would always take the qualified white student over the qualified black student? What if they decide that varying opinions are too troublesome, and decide to create a homogeneous campus? This is a true concern, and happened in this country for decades — which is why affirmative-action needs to stay in place.

The comments made during this case smack of prior theories that have long been debunked about African-Americans and intelligence such as the bell curve theory. In school, I witnessed white students as well as African-American students who could not cope with the stresses of the environment. Competition brings out the best and the worst in people. Some succeed, others don’t. No race has the monopoly on the ability to succeed. And white students complaining that a “good white candidate” was denied an opportunity because of affirmative action forgets one basic fact — maybe the white candidate was denied entry because he or she did not meet the entrance requirements period! Do white students begrudge the white athlete who has barely a 2.0 grade point average but possesses a gifted throwing arm thus making him able to be a quarterback on the football team? No one questions that, but it’s an example of someone who may not be qualified for an elite school being admitted because the school has a need. This worst-case scenario pales in comparison to affirmative action, where the African American students in question are qualified — but occurs daily across the country. The performance metric should be the determining factor as to whether or not African-Americans can succeed in higher education, not an outdated notion that has proven to be false.

The only great equalizers that force young people to interact with other races is school, and the military. Through diversity on the college campus, students learn to interact with each other and people of different races. I dare say it’s the microcosm on which our society is based. Reducing institutions to “lily white” experiences does both students and society a severe injustice. Schools need diversity; of ideas, of races, of religions. This is how we will be stronger as a nation – with tolerance, understanding and success for all.  

 

Melba Pearson is an attorney, writer, speaker, wife and the Resident Legal Diva. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva. She is also the President of the National Black Prosecutors Association. Learn more at www.blackprosecutors.org.